Rock varnish (also referred to as desert varnish in the literature because it is particularly noticeable in desert environments) is a dark, thin (typically 50-500 m thick), layered veneer composed of clay minerals cemented together by oxides and hydroxides of manganese and iron. Some scientists suggest that varnish may provide a historical record of environmental processes such as global warming and long-term climate change. However, despite more than 30 years of study using modern microanalytical and microbial culturing techniques, the nucleation and growth mechanisms of rock varnish remain a mystery. Rock varnish is of interest to the Mars science community because a varnish-like sheen has been reported on the rocks at the Viking Lander sites. It therefore important for us to understand the formation mechanisms of terrestrial varnish abiotic, biotic, or a combination of the two -- as this understanding may give us clues concerning the chemical and physical processes occurring on the surface of Mars. It is strongly believed by some in the biogeochemistry community that microbes have a role in forming rock varnish, and iron- and manganese-oxidation by microbes isolated from varnish has been extensively investigated. Only two of these studies have investigated the microbial genetics of varnish. These studies examined the morphological, physiological and molecular characteristics of microbes that had previously been cultured from various rock varnishes and identified the cultivars using 16S rDNA sequencing techniques. However, it is well known that most of organisms existing in nature are refractory to cultivation, so many important organisms would have been missed. The currently described work investigates the genetics of rock varnish microbial community from a site in the Whipple Mtns., south of Death Valley, CA, near Parker, Arizona. We employed both cultural and molecular techniques to characterize the microorganisms found within the varnish and surrounding soil with the objectives of (a) identifying microorganisms potentially involved in varnish formation, and (b) discovering microorganisms that simply use the varnish as an extreme habitat.